Foreign policy takes center stage during New Hampshire debate

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Although on stage in New Hampshire, dialogue traveled to the Middle East Friday night, as candidates probed policy in Afghanistan and Iran during the latest Democratic debate.

Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg kicked off the conversation, responding to a question about President Trump’s controversial assasination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Buttigieg said there was no evidence the killing of Soleimani made the United States safer. 

“One of the most volatile places in the world has just become more dangerous,” Buttigieg said, who served in Afghanistan and was the only veteran on stage. “If we learned nothing else from the war in Iraq, it’s that taking out a bad guy is not a good idea if you do not know what you are doing.”

Moderator David Muir pressed Buttigieg on whether he would have ordered the strike that killed Soleimani. The former mayor did not offer a yes or no, instead saying it would depend on the circumstances, and whether there is an “alternative.” 

However, former Vice President Joe Biden said unequivocally he would not have ordered the strike. 

“[Trump] doesn’t deserve to be commander in chief for one more day,” Biden said, who criticized the president’s claim that U.S. service members had “headaches” as a result of retaliatory Iranian missile attacks, while the Pentagon reported 64 people sustained mild traumatic brain injuries. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., said displaying military power by assassinating enemies around the world would lead to “international anarchy.”   

The conversation shifted from recent tensions in Iran to the United States’ longest-ever conflict in Afghanistan. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., reiterated her desire to “bring our combat troops home,” but was met with opposition from Biden, who denounced the Trump administration’s decision to pull troops from Syria in the fall and iterated the necessity of preventing terrorist attacks targeting the United States. 

“It is possible to see to it that they’re not able to launch more attacks from the region on the United States,” Biden said. 

Warren said she would listen to generals and work with allies as commander in chief. 

“It can’t just be the United States waging endless war,” Warren said, who also emphasized the need to manage terrorism and consult with allies. 

Candidates, including businessman Tom Steyer and Sanders, said diplomacy is lacking as a strategy in the Middle East. Sanders called for strengthening the Department of State and other diplomatic resources. 

“We have abandoned diplomacy,” Steyer said, “we don’t have a strategy and we don’t have allies.”

Buttigieg and Biden found common ground in exhibiting reverence for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was expelled from the White House today as punishment for his testimony during the House impeachment proceedings. Biden encouraged the crowd to rise in a display of support for Vindman.

“We deserve a better commander in chief,” Buttigieg said.